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Grief and loss

Loss and grief are a normal part of life. Children may grieve because they have experienced a wide range of losses, such as:

  • Death of a loved one or friend
  • Death of a pet
  • A loved one or friend having a serious illness
  • Parents’ divorce or separation
  • Loss of feeling safe after experiencing a traumatic event
  • Loss of their family home (by selling or by disaster)
  • Loss of a friendship
  • Moving schools

When we lose someone or something, we experience grief. Significant losses usually cause more intense grief. It is very common for grief to happen in waves, meaning that on some days the feelings are more intense than on other days. Everyone’s experience with grief is different, but some common feelings associated with grief are feeling: numb, shocked, sad, empty, lonely, angry, worried, anxious, frightened, helpless, guilty and fatigued.

Some young people may not have the developmental maturity, emotional understanding, emotional regulation skills or communication skills required to express their feelings of grief and loss. Instead they might express their grief through their behaviours, such as: crying (without being able to explain why), withdrawing, refusing to eat, being disruptive at home and school, experiencing separation anxiety, having trouble sleeping, having nightmares or experiencing bedwetting.

Difference between grief and depression

Grief and depression share many symptoms, including: sadness, emptiness, fatigue, guilt, having trouble thinking/concentrating, having sleeping problems and increased/decreased appetite. However, there are a few key differences between grief and depression:

  • Grief tends to occur in waves, which tend to be associated with thoughts or reminders of the loss. Depression tends to be more persistent and isn’t tied to a specific thought.
  • In grief children continue to have a healthy self-esteem, whereas in depression children often feel worthless or dislike themselves.
  • In grief children primarily feel sad, empty and loss, which is interrupted by feelings of happiness, pleasure and humour. In depression children have a persistent depressed mood (sad, empty and hopeless) and are unable to anticipate any future happiness or pleasure. 
  • When children grieve, they often think about death and dying, but usually these thoughts are about the people they lost. In depression, children think about ending their lives because they can’t cope with their feelings, feel hopeless and feel worthless.

It is normal for a grieving child to experience a wide range of emotions and for those feelings to be intense and overwhelming at times. However, if these feelings worsen, persist and negatively affect your child’s ability to function in daily activities, it is important to seek help. If you believe that your child may be experiencing depression or an adjustment disorder and you would like us to help, please contact us to schedule an appointment.

Coping with grief and loss

Everyone’s approach to dealing with grief is unique. Here are some tips for helping your children cope with grief and loss from the Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement (2014):

  • Be consistent and predictable by maintaining normal routines and following family rules. This helps your children to feel secure and safe.
  • Encourage your children to express their feelings. Ask them how they are feeling. Listen to them. Let them know that you hear, understand and accept their feelings.
  • Help your children to understand their feelings and express their grief in concrete ways (e.g., read stories, tell stories, draw, paint, make memory boxes, write letters, make a garden, make a journal, watch videos about change and loss, etc.).
  • Reassure your children that their feelings are normal and that they will feel better one day.
  • Allow children time and space to grieve. Don’t try to distract them from their feelings and don’t encourage them to avoid their feelings.
  • When you are talking to your children about death, use simple, age appropriate explanations. Some children (especially young children and children with Autism Spectrum Disorder) take words literally and will be confused if you use the terms gone to sleep, won’t wake up, at rest, went to sleep or lost. Instead use simple explanations such as:
    • To explain death: died, dead or isn’t living anymore
    • To explain why they died: she was very sick or his body stopped working
    • To explain the finality of death: will not return or isn’t coming back
    • To help them to understand that we can no longer help the loved one: is no longer in pain, doesn’t need to eat anymore, isn’t feeling cold/hot, or doesn’t need to breathe anymore
  • Allow your children to see you feeling loss, grief, sadness, pain and loneliness. Modelling feelings in a healthy, open way helps children to understand emotions, how other people feel and how they should respond to others’ feelings.
  • Create family rituals and routines to help your children connect with the loved one who has died. These rituals and routines can comfort your children during anniversaries of deaths and major events (e.g., birthdays and holidays). For example, you could visit the cemetery, light a candle, look at pictures of the loved one, make a memory book or do something you enjoyed doing with the loved one (e.g., cooking, gardening, playing, etc.).

Supporting families experiencing grief and loss

Before the loss

Sometimes we can anticipate that our children will experience a significant loss in the near future, such as: moving house, moving schools, parents’ separating/divorcing, a loved one having a serious illness or a pet having a serious illness. It can be daunting to contemplate how you will help your children through the loss. We can help you to support your children before the loss occurs by:

  • opening dialogue among family members,
  • developing your children’s emotional understanding,
  • developing your children’s emotional regulation skills,
  • helping your family to create support networks,
  • helping your children to understand the upcoming loss and how it will affect them,
  • helping your family to develop strategies to cope with the loss,
  • preparing your child on responding to people’s questions and remarks,
  • planning activities that your child can do to connect with the loved one before the loss and
  • being available as a support person to help at any time during your family’s grieving process.

If you would like us to support your family through your grieving process, please contact us to schedule an appointment.

After the loss

While grief and loss are natural and normal, grief and loss are also painful and difficult. Sometimes when a significant loss has happened, we aren’t sure how to help our children understand the loss and support them through their grieving process. If your children have experienced loss and need support to cope with their grief, please contact us to schedule an appointment.